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Review of standard food giant to explore nanotechnology

29 March 2009 1,743 views No Comment

Take a strand of your hair, divide its width by 100,000 and that’s the size of a nanoparticle, a tiny particle with the potential to create a big stir in the food world.

The technology promises to make food look and taste better but little is known about its health impact.

Some food giants are reported to be researching the technology, though none have publicly acknowledged it.

Europe is poised for a moratorium on the technology’s use in food, while Australia thinks its current regulatory standards are sufficient.

Consumer magazine Choice says nanotechnology is already used in around 800 products.

These include “invisible sunscreens”, where nanoscale particles of titanium dioxide give transparent protection from UV rays, according to Choice spokesman Christopher Zinn.

“There’s also shirts that don’t actually stain because they’ve copied the nano-structure of lotus leaves to create water repellent surfaces,” he said.

Mr Zinn says some of the food giants are exploring the use of the technology for food additives to enhance taste and texture.

“[They are] developing an ice cream that has lower fat content but has the same fatty texture and flavour,” he said.

“Food packaging can keep food fresher if you’re using nanomaterials. There’s a lot of applications; there’s a lot of work going on.”

But he says the food giants have been keeping hush on their research, and he is worried the technology could find its way into food and says consumers would be none the wiser and could get sick.

“Under current food code no requirement for any of this to be specifically labelled the use of nanoparticles,” he said.

“They’re so small they can actually enter cells and enter parts of the body, which might not routinely happen with normal food stuffs.

“That’s why we want to see a regime with Food Standards Australia and New Zealand, where there is going to be much greater safety assessments carried out.”

The ABC contacted food giants Unilever, Kraft and Nestle.

Kraft and Nestle say they have no local nanotechnology research underway but neither could speak for their international arms.

Food Standards Australia New Zealand declined an interview.

The Australian Office of Nanotechnology oversees the authority and develops nanotechnology policy.

Spokesperson Craig Cormick says the office thinks Australia’s regulations are tough enough.

“A major report commissioned by the Australian Government by Monash University found that right across the board the regulatory systems in Australia are sufficient to cover most things,” he said.

“However, they did point to some areas where we have to do a lot more work to make sure we keep on top of these things.”

Associate Professor Thomas Faunce, from Australian National University’s Medical School, doubts the veracity of the Monash University report.

“All the research at the moment tends to indicate nanoparticles have unusual toxicities related to size and shape,” he said.

‘In this sort of climate it’s much better if regulatory authorities apply the precautionary principle and start developing nano-specific regulatory structures.

“If we don’t we’re going to have a catastrophe-driven approach to regulation, where we wait for a major public health crisis to arise because of nanoparticles causing toxicity in people.”

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